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Politics of intimidation
Ideology & violence

By Fatima Farideh Nedjat
November 11, 2002
The Iranian

The horror of September 11 has left many commentators, including scholars, wondering, "why they hate us." Finding possible answers to that question involves tracing the cultural genesis of violence as far back as the family and the religious traditions that govern familial relations. As will be seen in the following pages, the institutionalization of violence against women in Muslim societies has contributed a great deal in bringing about willing perpetrators of other kinds of violence.

If we need to have some stability in the Middle East, perhaps the only "war" that we must fight is to educate both Muslim men and women in Islamic countries where the laws are not in favor of the female. Men must refrain from centuries old tradition, oppressing women, and women must become vigilant of their legal and social rights.

To understand the women's status within the Muslim society one should look at the theological precepts discriminating against women. We need to vociferously question the governing principles that have contributed to diminish women's welfare and those of her offspring.

To illustrate theology as subject to anthropological interpretation, one must also delve into its sociological, political and psychological effects on people. To define social behavior, it is important to note that behaviors are not built-in, but worked out in agreement with other participants.

I doubt that the contemporary flood of words about "God" has taught us much, unless these words are followed by examples. The Muslim perpetrators of destruction are sending mixed messages throughout the world. Humanity has lost its value, amidst these confusing signals. The wars and suicide bombings are indeed symbolic expressions that humans are yet far from commitment to compassion. What ultimately counts is the authenticity of human life. Nonetheless, it is an inescapable fact that people of all times and all places have given a religious interpretation to their existence or have refused that path entirely.

The family environment inculcates ethics and values that are carried out in behavior. Early on, the field of anthropology addressed the relationship between psychology and family dynamics, particularly mother-child dynamics and culture. This phenomenon is one of the dominant inclinations in anthropology.

The relationships between personalities that are formed by cultural conventions taught at home ultimately influence the national character. Culture could find a place for extremes of behavior. We should also be concerned with the question of normal and abnormal behavior, where the relationship between cultures and the construction of "abnormality" have also been discussed in great length.

Later, the general trend in anthropology has looked at the material circumstances and other professed influences. While psychology remains important component of violent behavior, we must pay attention to the other forces that oppress or constrain people. Perhaps the main concern of anthropologists was the fear that political and material circumstances had been reduced to an over-emphasis on psychology.

But they at the same time thought psychology should not be totally dismissed. Victims who are psychologically abused are susceptible to additional propaganda and influences through organized violence. The relationship between the status of women in Islam and the environmental profile of being raised by abused mothers leads us to understand the institutionalized act of violence.

The role of the theocratic government is to expand Islam not merely by the example of the rulers, but by the institution of "Jihad". Jihad means to struggle, and can be used to describe self-discipline. But it is most notoriously known as the fountainhead of the "holy war". Internally, within the social context, submission of women to men in Islamic culture is revealed in the common slogan, "Domesticity is the women's holy war."

Regarding the inferiority of the wife to the husband, there are interpretations of the Quranic verses, (sura 4/ verse 38 and sura 2, verse 228) which, state that men are the managers of the affairs of women and the husband is one degree higher than the wife. In this patriarchal society, polygamy is also advocated and men can have up to four legal wives at the same time. Among "shii,e" Muslims men also can have as many temporary wives called "siqeh".

A cross-cultural examination of the socialization of males and females has demonstrated that due to our complexity and our social needs, the family structure and feminine personality have an immediate impact on children, since they are born with strong natural intimacy toward their mother. Therefore, the women's role is the first behavioral model absorbed, and it is then transferred to the larger, societal context. Sons grow up observing their mother's incompetence. They learn to deprecate females and take their rights for granted. The boy subconsciously learns behavior, which renders him incapable of intimacy and mutual respect toward the partner he will one day choose. This enables him to continue the cycle of dominance and obedience that constitutes an Islamic marriage.

Here I metaphorically example the analogy of Holocaust to make such dominance more clear showing how a similar process has a final affect on the concentrated group (in this case women) in a Muslim society. The dilemma of obedience among women in Muslim society - the tolerance of spousal and social oppression, is a comparison to a process that compels the travesty of the Holocaust leading up in Muslim societies. It is notable that the process of dehumanizing an enemy, even one within, is part of all aggressive political regimes.

The Holocaust occurred only after extensive anti-Jewish propaganda, which systematically prepared the German population to accept the destruction of the Jews. Ordinary people were prepared, and step-by-step, the Jews were excluded from the category of citizen and national, and finally were denied the status of human beings. "Systematic devaluation of the victim provides a measure of psychological justification for brutal treatment of the victim and has been the constant accompaniment of massacres, pogroms, and wars."

Violence in the form of "unspoken threat" in Muslim society takes a similar path, in psychologically preparing the woman to obey her husband. The end goal is not to kill off members of the oppressed group - as in the Holocaust - but to deprive them of basic human rights. This sort of stigmatization of an entire group of people - women - is crucial to the dynamics of Islam.

Group pressure and action against a person, as a model of punishment is the prime factor in psychologically preparing individuals to obey. The politics of intimidation and the casting out of dissidents is a primary weapon used in Muslim communities, in order to enforce obedience among women. If a woman dares to rise up against a man and transgress his laws, she is punished in various degrees - legally within the social context, and privately within the household.

All Muslim societies, in interpreting Qisas (retaliation), have adopted a bill of Retribution. These legal constructions result in the denial and violation of human rights for women. Article 23 passed by the Islamic Republic of Iran's parliament, regarding adultery, states: "Murder require Qisas - provided the victim does not religiously deserve to be killed - e.g., someone who swears at the great prophet and the saints or someone who violates one's harim (bounds) and could not be repulsed but by murder; or that the husband should see someone committing adultery with his wife, in which case it is only permissible for the husband to kill both of them.

In all of the above cases it is not admissible to carry out Qisas on the murderer". Article 237 of the Egyptian penal code states: "As specified in the Quran, unlawful intercourse (zina) will require stoning her to death in public. A man who kills his adulterous wife and/or her partner - catching them in the act - is punishable with a maximum six months in prison.

Human nature in resisting violence has been found to vary in people depending upon their ideological and aggressive impulses. Within the Muslim societies the thought of confronting severe and harsh punishment will force women to remain silent when they are abused. A woman will never give herself the chance of exercising catharsis, releasing negative energy.

Therefore, she suppresses constant rage. She even becomes overly protective of her reputation, illustrating her faithfulness by becoming more submissive. Psychological factors, which have resulted in a loss of reasoning power, are due to pure pressure and marginalization of women from social roles. They have become numb and immune to stimuli.

In socializing with the common women of a Muslim society, comparing their attitudes to an individualistic approach to personality, it is obvious that most Muslim women have adopted the role of survivors. The psychic numbing of a diminishing capacity to feel is evident in their behavior. In dealing with pejorative remarks or even direct insults it seems that they are simply unable to experience ordinary emotional responses and psychic functions. Their passive acceptance of mistreatment can be studied through the lens of the psychology of the nervous system and psychopathology.

These psychological approaches are ways to understand the phenomenon of self inflicted pain, which begins with the acceptance of the self as "victim." This is the basis for becoming oppressed. How do these victims experience and interpret their suffering? How do ordinary women come to accept and justify theocracy and the violent actions of the regime, which include flogging them and stoning them to death?

In the case of apostasy from Islam, the female apostate would be imprisoned and beaten every three days until she returns to Islam. A Muslim woman cannot marry outside of her religion. These Islamic provisions allowing the potential for violence are virtually promoted and acted out through the government of these societies.

The phenomenon of culture and political ideology have been significantly observed and analyzed since the rise of fundamentalism. Religious teaching among the commoners and fundamentalists equates children and women as having the same mental capacity. With such a mentality, many of the country's human resources empower the abstraction of the "state" and its political representatives, instead of the people.

The women's expectations will remain unchallenged when she is stripped from social roles. For instance, she actually cannot travel without her husband's written permission. She cannot serve on juries, nor can she serve as witness. Her courtroom testimony carries no weight. Women can go to law school, but they cannot become judges or lawyers. For her to be eligible for government scholarships to study abroad, she must be married and be accompanied by her husband. Only men for legislation interpret the Quran so they can monopolize the excessive rights monitoring the judicial system.

A man may seek a divorce unilaterally, but a woman may do so only for limited reasons, before courts, and with difficulty, while custody of the children remains with the father. Furthermore, the man's share of an inheritance is twice that of a woman. This provision alone secures the women's dependency life long on the male relative, whether is her father, husband, son, brother or uncle. The men most distressed by rights for women are those whose superior position is due to the inferior circumstance of females.

Socio-biologist presumes that certain traits are inherent in our biological nature for violence. The process of social conditioning has been successfully accomplished through religion. The moral efficacy of religion and violence has been also questioned to determine the relationship between belief and the psychological inclination toward violence. Obviously, the violent act of suicide bombing among Muslim fundamentalists and the moral efficacy of religion are interlocking. The interrelation of martyrdom and reprisal are positively reinforced within the social context as a pillar of Islam.

The comparative moral efficacy between the three Ibrahimic religions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam is useful in observing religion's moral teachings within the social context in reference to violence. People within Jewish communities are raised believing in Jewish philosophy, they do not accept as true the contingency described as "life after death." The emphasis on rejecting such ideology (eschatology) produces a diverse outlook, in practice. It assists people to believe in the virtue of heaven and the wickedness of hell -in this life. Within the social context, it inspires people to reach consensus, and help one another.

In Christianity, a humble philosophy seeks compassion in the enemy. The popular morality encourages "forgiveness." The biblical verse metaphorically invites one toward peace by saying: "when the enemy strikes the right cheek offer him the left." Leaders like Gandhi advocated such a morality. Gandhi said this approach makes the enemy's hatred for you decrease, and his respect increase. During the Muslim/Hindu conflict that occurred in India's post-colonial civil war, a Muslim leader suggested "retaliation" against street violence. Gandhi's reply was, "If the theory of eye for an eye is practiced the world would be blind."

In contrast to Judaism and Christianity, Muslim law advocates "Qisas" (retaliation). Islam teaches how the ideology of Qisas should provoke individuals, centering their belief in terms of resistance, revenge, and development of chronic hatred if revenge does not occur. In Islam, sin is not forgiven by confession to God. The interpretation of the Quranic verse suggests that, "A Muslim shall not suffer death for an unbeliever".

Theologians interpret from the Quran that God is not the one to forgive when one is harmed. Forgiveness must come from the person who was harmed. This interpretation allows fundamentalists to psychologically embrace their right to exact revenge, because God left it up to them to decide. Since forgiveness is symbolically at large, the notion of hatred for retaliation is passed on to the next generation as their duty.

In a succession of writings on religious attitudes, Piaget distinguishes two fundamental types, corresponding to two seemingly contradictory qualities attributed to God: Transcendence and Immanence. Contrasting notion of causality best distinguish these types. The transcendent God is a God of causes; implicitly divine causes that lie beyond our understanding. By contrast, the immanent God is a God not of causes but of values, a God that lies within us rather than outside the world. Piage reports that individuals are inclined toward one or the other of these attitudes by the relation they have had with their parents.

People are predisposed toward transcendence and morality of obedience, he says, when as children they are taught unilateral respect for adults, particularly those with authority and prestige, an inclination toward immanence and a morality of authority follows, on the other hand when the attitude is one of mutual respect, founded on equality and reciprocity, an entire society and its educational system may be inclined in one direction or the other.

Studying the relationship between mother and son, and between father and son, reveals much about the Islamic tradition in fundamentalist household. The son, modeling his father, grows up observing the rapport of his parents. The boy sees only the separate roles of fatherhood and motherhood encouraged, not a spousal partnership.

Further, the mother's qualitative characteristic is that of caregiver. The child growing up does not truly conceptualize or develop a schema of a husband and wife relationship. He learns about the feminine figure only as mother, no t as wife. Her female quality is denied within the context of the family. Therefore, the wife is alienated from her true nature. "Alienation, defined as a profound sense of separation, arouses "hostility," which in turn leads to "fear" and finally to "enmity".

The oppression experienced by the mother, the inferior, is transferred to her son. In this process his obsession for death prevails as soft-core altruism. This is demonstrated when he rescues his community from perceived predators. He interprets his mother's patience, her tolerance for psychological and sometimes physical pain and punishment, as an act of virtuous martyrdom. The child's continuous exposure to the mother's complaints of suffering throughout his nurturing years leaves him fixated on the idea of exacerbating his own pain and struggle. The evil of aggression indeed cradles from infancy.

The suicide bomber proclaims his action to be a punishment of outsiders, the external alienating force. He remains suspicious of others. He did not grow up learning about the schema of an internal oppression, since he constructs the environment based on his own expectancies. Julian Rotter, the social learning theorist, describes such a belief system as one that believes in an "external locus of control". Those who are brainwashed to pursue the act of suicide bombing are satisfied when the authority they trust authorizes them to defend their cause, and thus save Islam.

Organized violence is a multi-dimensional occurrence. To begin, you must have a rightful, loyal and devoted body of force as the perpetrators. These constituents are provoked by environmental and peer competition to gain power. The perpetrators of violence are usually easy to recognize. They grow up with pathological symptoms confused in their minds. They do not relate to their surroundings, remaining isolated. They are mentally prepared and motivated by an ideology to justify the act of killing through the belief in "eye for an eye."

The Islamic government has the role of an insulator, to deprive and isolate people from other influences that are religiously not applicable. The country's resources empower the abstraction of the "state" and its political representatives, instead of the people. The social system of Islam, which creates a public world for men and a private one for women, tends to promote gender boundary maintenance. Slogans such as "Domesticity is the women's holy war" are the manifestation of political pressure, which the state exercises in order to prevent the influence of international communities.

Political Islam is a cry of revolt against intolerable living conditions. It is a quest for social justice. A greater and more influential bond must be formed between the feminists and international communities to create another example similar to the Western societies that proved these forces to have a positive influence on the cause of women's liberation.


Fatima Farideh Nejat holds a Bachelors degree in Interdisciplinary Studies of Anthropology, Psychology, Sociology and Women's Studies; and a Masters of Arts degree in International Training and Education from the American University in Washington, DC. She served in diplomatic corps of Iran working at the Iranian Embassy in Washington, DC, from 1970-80. She is currently Assistant Professor at the Department of the Army, Defense Language Institute in Monterey, California.

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